Wednesday, June 01, 2005

No Room for Disagreement with Anti-Smoking Advocates?

In response to my commentary on the flaws in Georgia's recently-enacted Smokefree Air Act, I received a fair amount of criticism for having spoken out to question the public health justification for this policy. One communication from a tobacco control advocate, which was not atypical of what I received, suggested that my commentary was nothing more than "spam" and that I crossed the line by criticizing tobacco control advocates in anything other than a private way:

"I am not open to spamming the world. Private discussions and disagreements are fine with me, in fact I welcome them. Giving our Governor's office ammo from within our own 'team' crosses the line for me."

The Rest of the Story

What this anti-smoking advocate was saying was that if one disagrees with him or her on a critical public health policy issue, it is only acceptable to communicate that disagreement privately with that particular individual. Any public expression of one's opinion on that policy issue, if it is in disagreement with this individual, represents crossing the line as a public health practitioner and communications that convey that opinion are merely spam.

This is quite disturbing. It tends to argue that tobacco control policy issues are not a matter for public debate, but for private decision-making among anti-smoking advocates, who are part of some team that cannot let any internal disagreement become known. It suggests that I, as a long-time researcher on tobacco control policy issues, must not disclose my opinions on any particular proposed tobacco policy unless those opinions are not in conflict with those held by all other advocates. In case of any conflict, I can only make my opinion known to those individuals with whom I disagree.

Well, you know what. This is a free country, and we have something known as free speech. We also have a political process by which laws and policies are made, and that process allows all interested individuals to publicly express their opinions and to have those views taken into consideration. But beyond that, it is only by allowing dissent that we can ensure that our movement continues along a reasonable and well-justified path. Especially when that dissent is based on very solid scientific and public health principles.

But something more important is evident here. At least some anti-smoking advocates appear to have the view that the work they are doing is sacred and not subject to public criticism simply because the ends are noble. We are fighting the tobacco industry and smoking so there cannot be criticism of the means by which are doing so. The ultimate ends justify the means, and there is no room for public discussion of those means, unless you agree with them.

This story also suggests that there is some sense that what health advocates are doing in their local areas is not subject to criticism from 'outsiders.' But what all advocates need to realize is that a public policy is just that - a public policy. If we as advocates are promoting a policy that potentially affects the lives, health, and/or well-being of thousands of citizens, then unfortunately, we are opening ourselves up to public accountability for our actions. We cannot advocate for policies that are going to affect thousands of people and at the same time, expect to be immune from any accountability for our actions. We cannot expect to be immune from publicly expressed views that may differ from our own, even from among our own "team" of public health advocates.

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